Do People Want to Tweak?

I believe that people want the ability to control their digital experiences – not just setting backgrounds or uploading photos, but the ability to completely change any aspect of any product or website they use and reconfigure them at will. In other words, I believe that people fundamentally want to tweak their computers and the web sites they visit to make them work better or look better or just be different from what everyone else has.

When I talk about the idea that people want to personalize their digital experiences, I often get blank looks. "Not everyone wants that," goes one line of reply. "Most people want things to just work – like a TV: you turn it on and leave it alone." It’s epitomized by this post on Macs vs. PCs.

Alan Kay is credited with the quote, "Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible." Einstein with the quote that "Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler."

The idea I have for enabling people to control their digital experiences -- to create truly personal experiences that they can share or not at will -- is one that seems to give a lot of people a hard time. They assume control = complexity. I don't know that it does. I think you can have both.

So what are some examples of simplicity+control that I can learn from?

Comments (14)
  1. Clint Rutkas says:

    I would agree with you that people — or at least a sizable group of people — want to customize. The popularity of TweakUI, Powertoys, Quicksilver and GreaseMonkey seem to bear this out. GreaseMonkey in particular seems appropriate in the digital space, as well as MySpace and My Yahoo. Each of these provides a means of adjusting the final experience in some way.

    The "secret" to making it simple is partly in constraining the choice, but more in how it is exposed.

  2. johnmont says:

    I’m betting this is Dan. Hi Dan! 🙂

    And the core of the question is really, "Who wants to tweak?" And, "How much?"

  3. Jon Udell says:

    I think some people tweak because they enjoy the process as much as the outcome. For them you need to provide lots of knobs.

    Others — and I’d argue the vast majority — would prefer to just enjoy the outcome. For them you should be unobtrusively adaptive. I have, for example, endlessly expressed to many different desktop OSs how I prefer to view folders. None notice or remember the preferences that my behaviors are expressing.

  4. Jon Udell says:

    ‘Alan Kay is credited with the quote, "Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible.’

    I think that’s Larry Wall’s aphorism. At least that’s how I’ve always heard it, and sometimes used it.

  5. johnmont says:

    I did a quick search for "simple things should be simple." There were about 2,500 results, only about 13 cited "Larry Wall," but over 1,300 cited "Alan Kay." It’s not definitive, but that’s why I cited it as Alan Kay.

  6. johnmont says:

    What I find interesting is that most software isn’t particularly adaptive, and the software that is (remember the menus in Office 11 that would hide menu options unless you double-clicked them, and then they’d pin the menu option you picked?) seems pretty poor at figuring out what’s a pattern of behavior and what’s just a one-time thing. I think we’re a long way from software that can deduce intent and pattern both and "remember" those.

  7. LOL, apparently one of our Coding4Fun writers wrote the comment using the C4F ID. Amusingly, our C4F email account is now getting responses to every post because of it! In short it wasn’t me as you know I think people want to tweak.

    For example, look at MySpace users (I know you love "users") customizing their home page, or Wii users building their Mii ( ) or Second Life users, etc etc.

    How many humans *tweak* their appearance? How many would if they could change their height, weight, physical attributes, etc?

  8. Jon Udell says:

    "It’s not definitive, but that’s why I cited it as Alan Kay."

    Yep, looks like Larry Wall did get it from Alan Kay.

    Note to self for the umpteenth time: search first, then speak 🙂

  9. johnmont says:

    I still think "users" sounds like it should be preceded by "drug," which makes the companies that create the software they use "pushers" or "dealers," but I think the rest of the world is less easily annoyed. And, of course, I find myself talking about "users" all the time, just as I find myself talking about "apps," which is a word I used to hate. But you’re right: I do know that you think people like to tweak.

    And I’d like to tweak away about 15 years.

  10. johnmont says:

    And there was probably someone who preceded Alan Kay. I’m going to bet that it was some 4th century BC Greek philosopher.

  11. Take a look at the websites that have sprung up around customizing Nintendo’s Wii avatars: Miis. I probably spent 30 minutes when I first got my Wii customizing my Mii to look at least vaguely like me. I even went back later to add in a Jack Black Mii. I think tweaking and customization are huge, and will only get bigger.

  12. Gaaham says:

    Some really good points raised here but I’d like to take this one perhaps yet a stage further….

    ‘those people who tweak’ do so because their sense of personal identity with the global environment is constantly and consistently shrinking.

    I’ll give you what I feel is a good exmaple….. You are sat in a coffee shop, it is nice and you are happy. It is important to feel this at all times and you know this to be so.

    You drink your oversized latte and soak up the ‘if only this were a Sunday’ ambience whilst reading with some good intent your expertly chosen literary confidant. The poetry is perfect as it describes it’s literary way towards the underbelly of this premise…

    Let me explain.

    Why are you in a coffee shop? Could the answer of which I am sure there are many literal ones be that philosophically we are now expected to live the dream in a pseudo-drama of things we belive to be true?

    Coffee shops are good


    Drinking Latte is goods because it tastes nice <<Tweak>>

    Reading The Times is good/hardback first edition et al id good.


    Picking up your ringing phone you briefly feel somewhat invasive of everyone else’s territory and swear that although you thought it an outstanding statement of individualism perhaps the theme tune to ‘The Waltons’ is not your best move and vow to disappear back into mediocrity as soon as possible. <Tweak> Well not until you’ve read your paper, drunk your coffee and gone back to work, perhaps downloading a few tunes for your ipod as a good measure… <<tweak>>

  13. Devon Strawn says:

    I was playing around with Flex a few months ago and made this graph to figure out how the class library is structured: The interesting bit (at least to me) is the depth of the inheritance chain from Object to…

  14. morganica says:

    Different kinds of tweaking though–tweaks to work better and tweaks to look better have different motivations. Sometimes I tweak to make the environment easier to use. Sometimes I tweak because today I prefer purple text to black. Sometimes I tweak because it isn’t working and maybe this adjustment will help. Still other times I’m too busy to tweak–leave me alone, just let me grab my data and get out.

    Myself, I’ll tweak anything digital I can get my hands on, but then I’ve colored my laptop red, too–I’m way into personalization. My mother, OTOH, won’t change anything on her laptop for fear of breaking it. Somewhere in the middle lies the rest of the world, and whether they want to tweak their digital environment depends.

    How many of us use anything but the default settings on our washing machines, microwaves and DVD players? Or, for that matter, how many people actually change the default Normal styles in the MSOffice suite?

    That’s ultimately about changing customers’ value perceptions, either by educating them…or giving them more value.

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